Beki Grinter

Writing Up Qualitative Data for an Interdisciplinary Audience

In discipline, empirical on September 14, 2010 at 7:26 am

I was asked for my thoughts on how to write up qualitative data & analysis for interdisciplinary crowd.

I am an enthusiastic of qualitative research. Well, actually, I’m an enthusiastic of many types of research, I practice qualitative research.

And I would say that some of the communication begins long before you’ve ever started writing. Knowing that the audience is open to what you might have to say is going to make a world of difference. I’ve been lucky, I’ve encountered many audiences that have found something of worth in what I have had to say. I’ve been employed by people from those audiences and invited to participate in interdisciplinary research. Working with, or just talking with, people who represent the target audience can be immensely helpful.

An Aside: I’ve also encountered a few audiences who are not receptive, and in a very few cases people who are openly dismissive and hostile. I have never encountered this sort of hostility from people with vibrant research programs, those who seek out interesting problems, and who in the end care more about getting something solved than about whether it is “appropriate.” Also, in my experience this type of circling the wagons has always begun long before I’ve arrived. But once the wagons have been discovered I’ve tended to walk away and stay away. (I guess there are some audiences that are not worth the effort).

Listening and learning is a central part of the interdisciplinary experience. My advisor taught me that. He was interested in how the same words mean very different things depending on who you talk to. My experience bears this out. Whether you are participating in a project, or just going to a conference where your potential audience hangs out, attending closely to how they define terms is an essential part of the interdisciplinary communications experience.

Tell it how it is. I am sure that this is true in any discipline, I am sure that it’s especially common when new to the experience, but it’s crucial to tell it how it is. Qualitative research is not usually generalizable. It might be, but frequently that’s not what its intended to do, and nor is it the best empirical choice. So in addition to explaining what you did, explaining why you chose that method (strengths) and what the limitations are (weaknesses). It should be apparent in the write up why this method was the best for addressing the problem, despite its weaknesses. That’s a type of honesty that reviewers respect. The tiny minority who don’t respect that, don’t respect the time it took to do the research, and so they are lost before the enterprise begun.

I think those are the principles that have guided me in my research and its presentation. I’ve had so many different kinds of interdisciplinary opportunity and I count them as among the best research experiences I’ve had. I find the voyages into other research terrains fascinating, perhaps that’s because I find myself oriented towards thinking about them as human-centered research problems.

I’m not sure whether that answered the question, but that’s the best answer I have. Anyone else?

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  1. Thanks for writing this up. I think your points about knowing your audience and understanding how your terminology may be interpreted by your readers and listeners.

    To me, what I love and find challenging about writing up qualitative data, is how your approach has to change with each dataset because it is so context-specific and case-dependent. So, I feel like I seem to be starting from scratch every time I write up results. Perhaps it’s an artifact as my training in psychology that I find writing up experiment results to be less messy. At the same time, I love the messiness in writing up participant-observation and interviews and fieldwork.

    • I’ve had very little experience with writing up non-qualitative data, so I’m not sure that I can say much based on those experiences. I find your sentiments to be true, and it starts, for me, in the related work. I have a little gripe about related work that appears at the end of the paper since I think related work should set up the questions and also explain the novelty of the contribution, and that that should all happen before the methods section since the two are highly coupled. That, I suppose, is another post 🙂

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